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Momo Challenge? Don't Fall for the Latest Viral Panic about Kids

Feb 28, 2019

I want to make you aware of a phenomenon called moral panic, which is illustrated by the current viral stories about the so-called “Momo Challenge.” There is a danger to our kids, but it’s not what you think.

In case you haven’t heard—which seems unlikely by now—there has been a flurry of media reports and viral social media posts this week about a “terrifying threat” to our children. Here is a sample report to read. Just know that, to coin a phrase, it is fake news.

Last year, The Blue Whale Challenge was a brief scare, similar in form and content to this Momo story: Young people are allegedly being encouraged to self-harm by mysterious overseas online sociopaths. I looked hard at the Blue Whale Challenge reports last year and I could not find a solid report of an actual youth suicide in the US clearly related to that one. This is a common phenomenon known as a "moral panic," a version of the better-known urban legend. As in this new story--the "Momo Challenge"-- media reports typically consist of reporters talking to parents about what their concerns were--never parents of any children actually affected--just a parent willing to talk the reporter. (Local news reporters literally talk to random people on the street who are willing to give an opinion about the thing the reporter JUST TOLD THEM ABOUT.) Then the media stories spread quickly, and they are always based on other media stories. One of our local stations had a story about this latest scare this week which consisted of an interview with a mother who was willing to talk to them about her worries, not an actual case. To their credit, the local story said this latest scare was only associated with one death in Argentina--none in the USA. The case in Argentina is not confirmed, by the way.

Remember the killer clown scare? Same kind of phenomenon.

The scares, generated by worried parents and viral, unsubstantiated news reports, are always worse than the actual alleged threats. The scares impact kids and the alleged threats--not so much. The scares consist of hysterical media reports, interviews with parents, police, and experts who have no direct knowledge of any specific cases. Well-intentioned police and school officials often pass-on notify parents of these things, because they haven't looked skeptically at the reports they are passing on. Sadly, this lends a sense of legitimacy to these rumors.

By the way, this Momo thing originally cropped up a year ago. Why all these news outlets are reporting about it in the last 72 hours or so? Was there some big revelation of actual evidence? It happened to hit a critical mass and went viral. Then every local TV station (and some national news organizations like NBC’s Today Show) decides they must have a story on it, and quickly. Like, tonight. Off goes an overworked and underpaid reporter, to find some poor parent in the carpool line at a school--or a random guy pumping gas somewhere--who is willing to say something on camera. They are usually just responding to what the reporter just told them about.

Phony stories like this divert from the real crisis: Suicide rates are up dramatically in almost all age groups and have sharply increased among teenage girls. The causes of this are complex. Social media is likely to be part of the problem. We would do well by our kids to focus on trying to do something about depression and anxiety among youth than by sharing these unsubstantiated rumors.

Let’s provide reasonable supervision of our kids' media use. Let’s talk with about their concerns, calmly and reassuringly. Let’s not scare them half to death with our unfounded panic. Let us please carefully read these stories with a skeptical eye. Look carefully for evidence of what the people quoted in these stories actually know about specific cases (Answer: They don't know about specific cases, except maybe a few vaguely-reported cases on some other continent.)

In the meantime, a lot of children will be disturbed by their fears about this thing, which has been irresponsibly spread by panicky adults.

One more thing. I’m writing this on February 28th. As late as the 27th, almost all the news stories were about this scary new threat to kids. By today, the stories are quickly moving to reporting on how this is a hoax and a fake rumor.

Thanks for reading.



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